UA hosts forum to discuss MIT’s Fall 2020 opening decision

UA VP to meet with administrators this week over first-generation, low income students’ concerns over revised financial aid policies

The Undergraduate Association (UA) held a Zoom forum July 10 to discuss MIT’s Fall 2020 opening decision. An Institute-wide town hall for undergraduates and their families further addressing these decisions will be held July 15 at 6:30 p.m. EDT.

Topics addressed during the forum included leaves of absence, housing and dining, financial aid, grading, and international student concerns surrounding new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policies.

The organizers of the forum present during the event included UA President Danielle Geathers ’22, UA Vice President Yu Jing Chen ’22, Dormitory Council (DormCon) President Sarah Edwards ’21, DormCon Vice President Shuli Jones ’22, MIT Panhellenic Association President Kate Nelson ’21, and 2021 Class Council President Kofi Blake ’21.

Only inviting seniors

MIT previously announced that seniors will be invited to campus for the fall term while first years, sophomores, and juniors will be invited to campus in the spring. Reif wrote in an email to the MIT community July 7 that seniors were invited because they “have the least flexibility to satisfy degree requirements” and that being on campus is “especially important for essential work in their programs, from capstone subjects to lab research and theses.”

When asked why MIT opted to invite seniors on-campus during the fall instead of in the spring, Chen said that Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 told her that “if everything was miraculously cured” by the spring term, then all classes could be present and “seniors could have both fall and spring.”

Barnhart also said that if MIT is not able to bring seniors back in the spring, an in-person Class of 2021 Commencement will not happen, Chen added.

Leaves of absence

The process of requesting a leave of absence will stay the same as before the COVID-19 pandemic, Jones said.  

Furthermore, students may “theoretically” return from a leave of absence at any time but “wouldn’t be guaranteed housing.” Jones said that DormCon does not “know exactly” how return policies “might change.”

Geathers said that students who take a leave of absence in the fall will not lose their housing guarantee for the spring if they are invited back for Spring 2021. 

The UA Council is still “finalizing the hard date of” when students must declare their choice to take a leave of absence, Geathers said.

Housing and dining

Jones said that while Dormcon does not “know for sure yet,” students who decline on-campus housing in the upcoming academic year “should be guaranteed housing on campus” in future semesters. Super-seniors are an exception because they are never guaranteed on-campus housing, Jones explained.

Jones said that dorm assignments will be determined using a housing lottery that will be released later this week. Students will rank their choice of dorms, and highest priority would be given to those who “want to move back to their old dorm.” A lower priority will be given to students who were “not living in a dorm in Spring 2020” or were living in a dorm “that is no longer open” like Burton Conner.

In response to a question from BC President Sarah Aaronson ’23, Jones clarified that BC residents’ dorm preferences will be prioritized below anyone who “specifically” wants to move back “to the exact same dorm they were already in, but above anybody who wants to transfer or switch dorms.”

Albert Gerovitch ’21, representative of MacGregor on the UA Council, added that the priority system is for “getting sorted into dorms,” not “for getting into dorms in the first place,” which is “guaranteed” for those invited back to campus.

Seniors who do not wish to have on-campus housing should simply not submit the on-campus housing request form, Gerovitch said.

“Students living off campus will have access to MIT Medical” and can be tested for COVID-19 by MIT Medical, Geathers said.

When asked about student possessions currently in storage, Jones said that although the logistics are “not totally finalized,” possessions left with Piece by Piece Movers can be delivered within close proximity to Cambridge or shipped to students farther away. “It’s likely that MIT will cover some or most” of these costs, “but potentially not all if it’s a lot of boxes or they’re being shipped very far away,” Jones said.

Possessions left on campus may be retrieved by off-campus students who schedule a pick-up time, Jones said, adding that on-campus residents will be able to get these possessions directly. A form will be sent out “early August” for individuals to indicate “what kinds of storage they used” and how possessions may be returned to them.

Gerovitch said that the application for non-seniors with special circumstances wishing to live on campus is expected to open July 15 and close July 17. Results will be released “around” July 21. However, these deadlines are only “draft dates,” Gerovitch said.

Individuals who apply for a housing exemption can expect a system that is “better” than the Spring 2020 emergency housing application process, Chen said, adding that there will be trained peer consultants available for students who are unsure whether to apply. There will also be a “structured appeals process,” Gerovitch said.

Chen said that MIT does not have a quota for non-seniors invited back to campus. Geathers added that there will be a set of “qualifications” that, if met, will guarantee a student campus access.

By contrast, many students who requested an exception to stay on campus in the spring faced an opaque application process, and many applications were initially declined for unclear reasons. The spring criteria to stay in on-campus emergency housing included having an “unsafe” home life, being an international student from a country “hard-hit by COVID-19,” or having “visa issues” that might prevent a return to MIT. Over 400 of the 700 applicants remained in on-campus emergency housing.

When asked whether students who request housing will be able to indicate who they wish to live near, Edwards said that the details are not yet determined. Similarly, Jones said the mechanics of pod living are also still being worked out.

Nelson said that Fraternity, Sorority, and Independent Living Groups (FSILGs) will be closed in the fall because administrators recognized the logistical difficulties of operating such housing, citing issues such as kitchen space facilitating COVID-19 spread and student security when living in a house at low density in Boston.

Nelson said that there is currently no information about FSILGs’ opening status in the spring, which will depend on “the status of the pandemic” at that time.

Jones said that DormCon hopes “some” residential common spaces “will be able to be open as long as everybody wears masks and it’s safe, but we’re still working on it.”

When asked if first years will be virtually assigned housing for the fall, Edwards said that this concern “had to be on the back burners,” but is something “we are starting to have more discussions about.”

Edwards acknowledged the importance of first years having a community and interacting with upperclassmen, so details on how housing can be assigned “in a way that’s best for everybody” are still in the works.

Regarding dietary restrictions, Edwards said that although there has not been “clear guidance as far as what process there is for making sure things are not contaminated in any way,” MIT Dining knows of the issue and is “working in it.”

Financial aid

The fall decision FAQ states that MIT “will offer each enrolled undergraduate student, whether remote or on campus, a paid undergraduate research, teaching, or service opportunity, with a stipend up to $1,900.”

Chen said that the $1,900 stipend is the amount that MIT will “guarantee” funding for. 

MIT is not “capping” funding at that amount if students “have something different set up,” Geathers added.

Many students expressed disappointment at the forum with MIT’s revised financial aid plan as outlined in Reif’s email. The plan assumes a room-and-board expense of $4,000 per semester for students living off-campus, half the amount allotted to students living on-campus. Additionally, students who owe MIT more than $5,000 will receive a “Covid-era grant” of $5,000 while students who owe MIT less than $5,000 will have their bill zeroed out.

Some students have expressed concern that the financial aid plan hurts low-income students who owe MIT no money and normally receive more than $4,000 in aid for food and housing.

Tanner Bonner ’22 wrote in an email to The Tech that the plan has “disproportionate impacts on students with an expected family and student contribution near zero,​ especially those who plan to live off-campus this Fall. These students would normally receive refunds of up to roughly $8700 for housing and food as covered in their scholarship if they forwent a dorm room and meal plan.”

“This difference is drastic for many members of our low income community, who are too often overseen in administrative decisions,” Bonner wrote.

Chen said at the forum that she expects to meet with Dean of Student Financial Services Stu Schmill ’86 and Barnhart this week to discuss student concerns.

Grading policy

Chen said that the Fall 2020 grading policy will be released “early” this week. The faculty committee is deciding between universal PE/NE, universal A/B/C/D/F, opt-in PE/NE, or “dual choice,” where the professor decides how a class will be graded before registration but students may place the class on PE/NE at the end of the term.

International students

Natasha Hirt ’22, UA COVID-19 implementation policy and ethics subcommittee member, said that there have been no updates regarding international students because MIT is still working on the joint lawsuit with Harvard against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and ICE. However, an update will be sent to students as soon as more information becomes available. 

U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs said July 10 that the hearing will take place July 14 at 3 p.m. EDT, The Crimson reported.

At the conclusion of the forum, Geathers created a Zoom whiteboard for attendees to share their hopes for the fall term. Entries that appeared included “pods,” “access to campus from off-campus,” “not being kicked out in the middle” of the term, “no ICE,” and “dorm culture continuation with frosh in the spring.”

“I definitely want to emphasize that we don’t have all the answers,” Jones said, adding that MIT’s decision was “also very surprising to us” and that the UA is open to feedback.

Students can submit topics they want the UA to raise at the July 15 town hall through an online form. Community members can send feedback to the UA Committee on COVID-19 at